Thursday, July 21, 2011

Sixteenth Century Italy, Nineteenth Century Style

35. The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni

Finally, I've finished The Betrothed, an epic nineteenth century Italian novel that in my version (pictured above) is 720 pages in length. Manzoni, evidently a devoted scholar of sixteenth century Milan, weaves his story into the history of that time and place, including politics, religion, famine, and plague.

Renzo and Lucia are our betrothed couple, and their troubles beset them before their intended wedding day, when the local lord, Don Rodrigo, forbids the parish priest, the cowardly Don Abbondio, to perform their marriage. Renzo and Lucia, along with Lucia's mother Agnese, are poor country folk in Pescarenico, a small town in Lecco, a territory belonging to Milan. Renzo tries to achieve justice as the more powerful townsfolk turn a blind eye. Don Rodrigo prepares to kidnap Lucia. The plot is thwarted, but the lovers must go separately into exile. We begin to meet a wide cast of characters, specifically do-gooders and not-so-good-doers, in regard to our young couple, and also to hear about a series of events that concerns them only marginally. Renzo finds himself in the midst of bread riots in Milan, Agnese is later caught in the path of invading Frenchmen, and all our friends experience the plague, although much less detail is given to their particular sufferings than to the wide-ranging effects and consequences in Milan.

As I described in an earlier post, Manzoni's meta-narrative style amused and pleased me greatly. His descriptions of characters, particularly their thoughts, demonstrated for me a great understanding of humanity. The best examples are Manzoni's forays into the head of Don Abbondio, the consummate coward whose inaction is the cause of the series of events recorded in the novel.

"Through all this conversation, the thing that was most vividly present in his mind was the picture of those bravoes who had threatened him and the reflection that Don Rodrigo was alive and well and would come home again one day or another in all his power and pride, and also in a bad temper. The splendid appearance of his guest, his noble appearance and his eloquent words inspired the cure with confusion and a certain fear; but it was not a fear that mastered him completely, or prevented his mind from formulating objections, because the thought was in his mind that the Cardinal, at least, would never have recourse to bravoes or swords or muskets." (478)

I love this incredibly human portrait of fear, and the type of logic that no one would want to admit to. Manzoni makes it a strong point in this novel to note that evildoers can never get away with their deeds unless frightened bystanders let them. It is those who fear more for their life than their soul who are the real villains in Manzoni's world.

Don Abbondio notwithstanding, the Church in general gets a very respectful treatment, particularly the monks of the Capuchin order. Something of a mentor/hero figure is Father Cristoforo of the Capuchins, whose powerful personal history of forgiveness foreshadows the thread of forgiveness throughout the novel. Other heroes are the aforementioned Cardinal, Federigo Borromeo, and various other priests and monks. For balance, we do meet the slightly corrupt head of the Capuchins, who bends to the political wrangling of Don Rodrigo's uncle to have Father Cristoforo transferred, and a nun known as the Signora, with sins on her head and a tragic past, who betrays Lucia. While many parts of Manzoni's narration appear to be satire, his affection for the Church is serious and constant, especially in contrast with his portrayal of the government as ineffective at best and corrupt at worst. Manzoni makes a joke throughout of the numerous edicts published to ban or promote this or that, none of which are obeyed or enforced except immediately after publication.

One satirical exchange that I enjoyed, definitely a product of Manzoni's perception of the sixteenth century, deals with letter writing. Lucia charges Agenese to write to Renzo with upsetting news. To undertake her duties, Agnese employs a letter writer to whom she dictates. None of our trio are literate. Manzoni describes the process:

"The peasant who cannot write, and needs something written, turns to someone who has learned to use a pen...He tells the man what has gone before, with such clarity and logical order as he can muster, and then tells him, in the same style, what he wants to say. The literate friend understands part of what he says and misunderstands another part; he advises him, suggests a couple of changes, and then says "Leave it to me!" He takes up his pen and puts the first man's thoughts in literary form, as best he can; corrects them or improves them, adds emphasis or takes it away, even leaves bits out, as seems best to him...When such a letter reaches the other correspondent, who is equally ignorant of his ABC, he takes it to a man of the same calibre, who reads it and explains it to him. Then doubts arise over what the letter really means. The interested party, with his knowledge of what has gone before, maintains that certain words must mean one thing; but the man who is doing the reading, from his knowledge of the written language, claims that they must mean something else. In the end the man who cannot write must put himself in the hands of the man who can, and must charge him with the task of replying. The answer will be composed in the same fashion as the first, and will be submitted to the same sort of interpretation." (497)

This amusing interplay is a genius argument for literacy if ever I saw one! I know this is quite long, but I couldn't resist showing how funny and interesting Manzoni can be. If you enjoyed that passage, I absolutely recommend you read The Betrothed. A great project would be to compare this novel with contemporary British novels. Manzoni uses earlier conceits of an "anonymous author" and very nineteenth century moralizing, characterizing, and viewing of the big picture. Of course, I don't know if he was (and guess he was not) unique in this among Italian authors of the time period, another area of research to dive into sometime.

1 comment:

litlove said...

This sounds really intriguing! Thank you for a lovely, rich review.